Reimer: Goaltender of the Present and Future
Whether the Toronto Maple Leafs successfully execute the impossible and put itself in the playoff picture by April 10 is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
And that is due to several positive stories that have emerged since the all-star break. Despite the departures of Tomas Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin and Kris Versteeg, the Leafs have overcome adversity and remain in the playoff race despite the overwhelming odds against them. The pessimist would cite their inability to reach the playoffs despite the team's annual surgence to inch closer to the big dance, but this season has been different. Assuming they fall a few points short of the playoffs, the mere fact that the youngest team in the National Hockey League was capable of recording one of the best records in the league after the all-star break is an accomplishment in itself, especially considering the criticism for a lack of quality prospects in the cupboard in recent years. Moreover, add the resurgence of Phaneuf in the second half, the surprising offensive potency despite a supposed lack of talent in the top-six, and the emergence of Luke Schenn as aurguably the team's best defenseman at only 21 years old.
However, perhaps the most intriguing story has been the dominant goaltending of James Reimer, the 23-year old Catholic who outperformed a number of goaltenders, including the American Hockey League, to grab the reins as the Leafs' starting goaltender. Perhaps the NHL's most humble athlete, Reimer has posted an incredible 17-7-4 record, 2.51 goals-against-average, .924 save-percentage and three shutouts as a rookie netminder. He has not only been the focal point in the Leafs' playoff run, but he has given hope to a franchise in dire need of a franchise goaltender. While it is still too early to determine whether Reimer is capable of maintaining his status as one the league's top goaltenders, he has put general manager Brian Burke in a complicated position.
Considering the Leafs will have upwards of $15 million in cap-space before July 1 hits, Burke must decide whether he will retain Reimer as the starting goaltender, or target a free agent such as Ilya Bryzgalov, who will more than likely test free agent waters. If he does the latter, Reimer will be relegated to back-up duties and would play no more than what he has already in the final quarter of the season. Such an acquisition would likely mean the end of Reimer's tenure in Toronto considering Bryzgalov will likely seek a long-term contract. Considering the list of free agent goaltenders is bare in 2012, unless Pekka Rinne opts out of Nashville, Burke would be taking a gamble no matter what he decides, should Reimer be a flash in the pan and falter next season.
But has Reimer really come out of nowhere? While he doesn't have tons of experience in any league he has played throughout his career, he has consistently recorded solid stastictics. Consider that since his inception to professional hockey in 2005, Reimer has played in the WHL, ECHL, AHL and the NHL and has never recorded a save-percentage under .910 (in fact, in 44 career games in the AHL, Reimer has a .921 save-percentage). He was also named the Most Valuable Player of the 2009 Kelly Cup Playoffs when the South Carolina Stingrays captured the championship in the ECHL.
It's difficult to determine whether Reimer is the Leafs' goaltender of the future, but it's a gamble well worth exploring considering what he has accomplished thus far. Maybe all he needed was a chance to shine.